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The Laura C. Holloway Letters

Jul 5, 2012 3:36 PM | 0 comments

Laura Carter Holloway (also known as Laura Holloway Langford) has appeared before in the pages of Brooklynology, as a founder of the Seidl Society, provider of the Brighton Beach Concert series of the 1880s, and as a correspondent of Susan B. Anthony.  Now at last the full finding aid to the Laura C. Holloway Letters is available online. As well as the Susan B. Anthony letters, the collection contains an extensive file of letters relating to Holloway's book, The Ladies of the White House,  several letters from poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, one from Harriet Beecher Stowe, and miscellaneous other items.

Many of the Ladies of the White House letters are written, as you might imagine, by women who had lived in the Executive Mansion, including Martha J. Patterson, daughter of President Andrew Johnson; Virginia J. Trist, granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson; Bettie H. Eaton, granddaughter of President William H. Harrison and sister of President Benjamin Harrison; and Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, sister of President Grover Cleveland.

Two letters by Virginia C. Trist are particularly fascinating; one of them, a fourteen page memoir of her mother and other female relatives, contains vignettes of life in the Jefferson household. Of the miscellaneous letters, Oliver Otis Howard's dated Dec 21, 1885  stands out. In it, he recalls some of the more difficult episodes of his career, including his work with the Freedman's Bureau and the peacemaking with Cochise and the Apaches in Arizona.

Letter from Gen. Oliver Otis Howard

One aspect of Holloway's life absent from this correspondence is her interest in religion and the occult. In the 1880s, Holloway became involved with Brooklyn's Theosophists and also with Brooklyn's small Buddhist circle. (In 1886 she published the Buddhist Diet Book, which was by all accounts unlikely to convert many to vegetarianism.) It is Holloway's journey as a spiritual seeker that provides the focus for Diane Sasson's new biography, recently arrived on my desk.

Yearning for the New Age. Laura Holloway Langford and Late Victorian Spirituality (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)(not yet catalogued!), traces Holloway's journey from Tennessee, where she made a bad marriage and bore a son, to Brooklyn, where she worked as literary and woman's page editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper--one of the first women to work in a newsroom--and became a respected author. She was a woman of many names, and a woman of many roles. Sasson writes in her introduction:

To President Andrew Johnson she was a "little rebel." To Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, she was a "bomb-shell from the Dugpa world." In occult fiction, she is portrayed as a busybody who fancied herself as a mental healer. Some Theosophists labeled her a "sex maya." Brooklyn newspapers identified her as the "chief priestess" in the Wagner cult, but Henry Ward Beecher praised her as the most eloquent lecturer on the subject of woman in America.

In the 1880s Holloway became deeply interested in Theosophy, the movement promoted by Mme Blavatsky, and was later so profoundly attracted to the simplicity of Shaker life that she bought a farm from the Canaan Shakers and left Brooklyn in the early 1900s to live on the land. Among her books and articles touching on religious subjects are Five Years of Theosophy (1885), The Yoga Way (1891) "Teachings of the Master" (1886) "Buddhism vs Christianity" (1889) "Madame Blavatsky: A Pen Picture..." (1912) and many more. Sasson stresses the importance of her role as a disseminator of ideas on Eastern religions and other progressive causes, crediting her with helping to "alter the cultural landscape of the nation" and usher in a "New Age of spirituality."

The book provides valuable new information on Holloway and her circles of influence, as well as the "cultural landscape" of late 19th century Brooklyn.